20th-century French philosophy  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Gaston Bachelard, American reception of French theory

Twentieth-century French philosophy, also called French Theory is a strand of contemporary philosophy associated with post-World War 2 French thinkers, who were directly influenced by German philosophy. Twentieth-century French philosophy and the work of Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze and Roland Barthes has been influential in the Anglosphere since the 1960s, especially with regards to the art world.



Twentieth-Century French Philosophy was influenced by German philosophy, and the role of the French Communist Party in liberating France, meaning that it became for a brief period the largest political movement in the country. The attendant interest in communism translated into an interest in Marx and Hegel, who were both now studied extensively for the first time in the French university system. On the other hand, there was a major trend towards the ideas of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, and toward his former disciple Martin Heidegger. Most important in this popularisation of phenomenology was the author and philosophy teacher Jean-Paul Sartre (by then a noted intellectual), who called his philosophy existentialism.


The work of Bergson (1859-1941) is often considered the division point between nineteenth and twentieth century French philosophy. Essentially, despite respect for mathematics and science, he pioneered the French movement of skepticism towards using scientific methods to understand human nature and metaphysical reality. 'Positivism', of which, for example, the french sociologist Durkheim was interested in at the time, was not appropriate. Unlike latter Philosophers, Bergson was highly influenced by Biology, particularly Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, which was released the year of Bergson's birth. This leads Bergson to discuss the 'Body' and 'Self' in detail, arguably prompting the fundamental ontological and epistemological questions to be raised later in the 20th century.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre (1905-1980) is, if only by birth, our first truly 20th century French Philosopher. He is probably also the most famous - being a dramatist, screenwriter, novelist and critic. The Existentialism Sartre is concerned with is also a more well-known philosophical movement to the lay-person than, for instance, deconstruction. Phenomenology was one of his key concerns.


Maurice Merleau Ponty (1908 – 1961) was a French phenomenologist philosopher, strongly influenced by Edmund Husserl. Merleau-Ponty is classified as an existentialist thinker because of his close association with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and his distinctly Heideggerian conception of Being.

Some French Marxist Philosophers

It is important to distinguish between Marx and Marxist thinkers. Often, Marx is coined almost discursively to assess class-relations. It is also important to realise that, as well as there being varying degrees and interpretations of Marxism, many French Philosophers held changing views on the ideology within their lifetime. Sartre, for instance, became more influenced by Marx throughout his life.

Alexandre Kojève (1902 – 1968) was a Marxist and Hegelian political philosopher, who had a substantial influence on intellectual life in France in the 1930s.

Louis Althusser (1918 – 1990) was a key Neo-Marxist philosopher, and still very highly cited academic in a number of fields.


The Structuralist movement in French philosophy was highly influenced by the Swiss thinker Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 - 1913). His ideas laid the foundation for many of the significant developments in linguistics in the 20th century. He is widely considered the 'father' of 20th-century linguistics.

Jacques Lacan (1901 - 1981) was specifically interested in the philosophy of psychoanalysis. He could be said to be relevant to the more modern foundations of discursive psychology.

Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984) was a key founder of the structuralist movement. His influence is broad-ranging, and his work has a tendency to be as controversial as it is intriguing.

Post Structuralism

Post-structuralism is, like structuralism, an ambiguous term in some respect. It is first important to understand the nature of the schools of thought - as often it seems they aren't truly separate 'schools' at all. It is also interesting to note how, much like Sartre's interested in art, both of these movements are important to a wide range of academic disciplines. Eg, English literature, Cultural Studies, Media studies/Film studies, anthropology, etc etc. This is because it is particularly relevant to Discourse analysis.

Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) was an Algerian-born French philosopher, known as the founder of deconstruction. His voluminous work had a profound impact upon continental philosophy and literary theory.

Jean-François Lyotard (1924 – 1998) was a deconstructionist philosopher and literary theorist. He is well-known for his articulation of Postmodernism after the late 1970s.

20th Century French Feminism

The Feminist movement in contemporary France (or at least that of which can be placed in the 'Philosophy' genre) is characterised more by deconstructionism and Marxism than much Anglo American Feminism. Key thinkers include psychoanalytic and cultural theorist, Luce Irigaray (born 1930), and Julia Kristeva (born 1941), although the latter of which was actually of Bulgarian birth. See also Simone de Beauvoir

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